We need strong leadership at COP, but we also need to play our part


Blog by Dr Greg Spellman, Senior Lecturer in Environmental Science.

Recent analysis by market researchers Demos has identified that the British public displays ‘overwhelming’ backing for strong climate action. The opportunity now arises for our leaders to represent the nation’s mood at the fast approaching COP26 summit in Glasgow.  Unsurprisingly there have been critics already – the teen activist Greta Thunberg has criticized global leaders over their promises to address the climate emergency with the words “blah, blah, blah”, Claire O’Neill, sacked head of COP26, has said the UK was “miles off track globally where we are meant to be” and there has been a “huge lack of leadership and engagement” from the current government, and as for the actions of Insulate Britain

So, should we have confidence in government?  Boris Johnson’s ‘Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution’ gave us some hope.  He described it as an ambitious roadmap
for making the UK the world’s ‘number one centre of green technology and finance’ with plans for a greener infrastructure, investment in low carbon hydrogen, and achieving ‘jet zero’. This was a welcome ‘U-turn’ for the PM and his environmental credentials. 

Between 2004 and 2020 he generally voted against measures to prevent climate change. In 2019, he not only voted against a motion calling on the government to bring forward ‘a green industrial revolution to decarbonise the economy and boost economic growth’ (the irony!), but then introduced a new air traffic management bill that would lift practical limits on the number of planes British airspace can accommodate. Whilst Mayor of London, Johnson wrote several climate-sceptic articles for publications such as the Daily Telegraph and the Spectator.  Now the main attraction of COP26 is to move away from acting alone towards collaborating internationally towards effectively addressing the huge global problem that is climate change.  There is a need to share ideas, experiences, plans and action about how we live, work, move around and use energy. We must avoid this insidious flag-waving British exceptionalist narrative in which the world needs to learn from what we do because we are already doing it better.  

Agreement will require carbon emissions to fall by 45% this decade yet greenhouse gas concentrations continue to rise. In fact, the increase in emissions this year is set to be the second biggest in history, second only to the ‘rebound’ from the Financial Crisis. Despite new targets from the US, the UK, the EU and others, there will still be a 16% rise in emissions this year.  The United Nations Environment Programme refer to the so called ‘emissions gap’ as the difference between “where we are likely to be and where we need to be” with respect to progress and current commitments made by governments (NDCs) remain seriously inadequate to achieve the climate goals of the Paris Agreement and would lead to a temperature increase of at least 3oC by the end of the century.  Themes of COP26 are mitigation, adaptation and resilience, but leaders need to keep prioritising emissions reductions.  Yes, adapting to the problem that already exists is critical but we need to prevent the problem growing and ultimately becoming impossible to adapt to. 

Staying within the 1.5oC threshold of the 2015 Paris International collaboration at COP26 means recognising climate change is a shared problem. We live in a world characterised by gross inequality, in terms of impacts of climate change, the means by which impacts are lessened but also with respect to current and historical responsibilities for the problem.  Swissre, for instance, identifies India as the most vulnerable nation to the effects of climate change (there will be excessively high temperatures and extreme drought) yet India, despite its huge population, has only contributed 3% of the carbon dioxide that has ever been emitted.  The UK is more responsible for global warming than any other country – if global carbon dioxide emissions are allocated using per capita calculations. There will be much talk of all types of responsibility at COP26.

The UK has cut its emissions by more than two-fifths since 1990, however the majority of the reduction has been in the power sector, where people have not witnessed it directly affect their day-to-day lives.  We can to some extent rely on  green technological solutions, but very few of us can claim to have personally contributed to their development. 

If we really care about our planet and everybody on it, much of the action needed now involves our own personal behaviour, such as eating far less meat or leaving the car at home.   Well supported ‘soft’ government policy, like increasing education and awareness and making large corporations pay carbon taxes is one thing – we don’t actually have to do anything ourselves- but less popular and more uncomfortable options like restricting our casual hyper mobility by increasing fuel duties, introducing road pricing, and ending our love affair with flying is another. 

We need strong leadership to represent our concerns on the international stage of COP26 but we need bold government at home that that doesn’t surrender to popular, vote winning but slow change but recognises that dealing with climate change is not going to be easy for anyone.